Macbeth: A Modern Production of a Classic Tale – Two Hours of Pure Entertainment

I’m going to put my hands up and admit that Shakespeare has never been my area of expertise: brave to say as a Drama teacher of nearly 20 years.

I enjoy some of the comedies and have directed a few in my time, but I find the tragedies and histories difficult to relate to and the language hard to follow. As a lover of expressionism, music theatre and non-naturalism in general, I shy away from it in my teaching, and to be fair, my students are often left a bit traumatised by having overstudied Romeo and Juliet at GCSE and beg me not to teach it. I’m shamefully happy to comply. However, following my interview with the lead of Leeds Playhouse’s new production of ‘Macbeth’, Ash Hunter, I was willing to enter into the theatre open minded. He promised a production that is relatable to a 21st century audience, with relationships and personalities that are recognisable. I was sceptical…..but hopeful. 

Elkanah-Wilder-Karina-Jones-and-Charlotte-Arrowsmith- TheWitches-with-Ash-Hunter-

Macbeth, better known to thespians the world over as ‘The Scottish Play’, follows the rise and fall of Macbeth and his cunning wife. Set in Scotland in the 11th Century, Macbeth begins the play as a hero, a loyal defender of the land. On meeting three witches upon the moors in the dead of night, he is told that he will become King. As he relays this information to his wife, she immediately puts plans into place that will allow this prophesy to come true, brutal plans that force the couple to turn their backs on morals and all decency. Macbeth does fulfil the prophecy, but the cost is great and the role a precarious one to keep. Was the prize really worth the horrifying cost?

Aosaf Afzal (Duncan) and Ash Hunter (Macbeth)

This production of Macbeth was first seen at the Playhouse in 2022 and it was an interesting decision by them to repeat the same production only two years later. Some of the cast have changed though, and that alone generally leads to a very different production. I didn’t see the original, but going by the packed theatre, the repetition of material hasn’t put people off booking.

Benjamin Cawley (Ross) and Paul Brown (Lennox)

This production has left me very much split. True to Ash Hunter’s word, this was definitely a production for a 21st Century audience and director Amy Leach should be congratulated on some of the clever ways she has tried to grip a new audience into the world of Shakespeare. One way this was achieved was through visually engaging battle sequences and by showing live several of the deaths that usually take place off stage. This violence and tension will no doubt appeal to teenagers in particular and were effective in highlighting the gruesome acts that Macbeth is responsible for. In contrast with this, a couple of comedic moments are highlighted, with one particular section feeling like a scene taken from a farce, perhaps taking the innuendos a little bit too far. However, there’s no doubt that all the teenagers in the audience will be laughing hysterically at it.

Daniel Poyser (Banquo) an Josh Ndlovu (Fleance)

The set and lighting, created by Hayley Grindle and Chris Davey respectively, were highlights of the production for me. The minimalistic set highlighted the brutality of the Scottish land, the surrounding leaves showing the emptiness of the moors, the puddle on stage helping to bring the outside in. The use of a single large drawbridge was genius, being raised higher or lower to create either a ramp or a secondary level above the action. It helped to emphasise status and provide a separate space on stage in which to plot. The sharp beams of light shining down on the space below it allowed the table scenes to be portrayed as a chessboard, political figures debating their next move to capture the throne. The large metallic pillars dotted around stage at various heights had mounted, moving heads that provided sharp beams of cold light that beautifully created a sense of eeriness, especially when mixed in with the fog. In the battle scene they created a lightshow that again brought the swordplay into the 21st century, as the sequence was given a sense of being part of a shoot-em-up game on a Playstation. In addition to this was the constant atmospheric music, by Nicola T. Chang, that provided consistent tension throughout most of the play. This added depth and conflict to the monologues especially, whilst also helping to bring extra power to the dramatic fight scenes.

Jessica Baglow (Lady Macbeth) and Ash Hunter (Macbeth)

Whilst not everything in the production hit the right note for me, there is no denying the talent shown by the two lead actors, Ash Hunter (Macbeth) and Jessica Baglow, who plays the much coveted role of Lady Macbeth. As Hunter had promised in his interview, this was a relationship that had been clearly planned and deeply developed in rehearsals. Their affection towards each other in the opening was tender and real, a strong chemistry being shown between the two.

Jessica Baglow (Lady Macbeth) and Ash Hunter (Macbeth)

An absolute highlight was the famous Act 2 Scene 2, where Macbeth returns carrying the bloody daggers. The panic and stress was believable and harrowing to watch and I was utterly enthralled by the action. I was also impressed by the inclusiveness of the production, and skill shown by deaf actor Adam Bassett who played the role of Macduff. The cast worked together to create the sign language which made the character of Macduff himself deaf. It didn’t affect the pace at all and added a beautiful moment of tension when the audience waited with bated breath as Macduff had to be told about the fortunes of his family. It also added extra power to his line in the final scene ‘I have no words: my voice is in my sword’. What a genius way to interpret such a role.

Adam Bassett (Macduff), Paul Brown (Lennox) and Ash Hunter (Macbeth)

I was less impressed by the portrayal of the witches. Their scenes are some of the most exciting and famous within all of Shakespeare’s plays. Banquo says of the witches ‘they look not like th’ inhabitants o’ th’ Earth’. And yet the witches were just a bit boring. They simply looked like normal peasants and their blocking for the most part was mundane too. There have been some fantastically creative versions of the witches on both stage and screen – Kathryn Hunter in ‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’ by Joel Coen to name but one. So much thought had gone into so many other aspects of this Leeds Playhouse production, but it felt as though the witches were an afterthought. They really did miss a trick here.

Elkanah Wilder, Karina Jones and Charlotte Arrowsmith

I had a concern about some of the major changes to the script. I’m not by any means a purist, but some of the script additions were weak, particularly in the added scene when Lady Macduff and her children are captured. I cringed when the daughter entered singing ‘Ring, a ring of roses’, a song I often use as an example to my students of the type of song that they shouldn’t ever use in a play as it was a running joke that it’s used in all bad GCSE plays. The whole section in that same scene about ‘what is a traitor?’ was so far removed from the poetry of Shakespeare it jarred on the senses and was corny.

Jessica Baglow as Lady Macbeth

The other thing that I felt uncomfortable with was the decision to have Lady Macbeth miscarry during the production. At the start of the play, we see Macbeth and Lady Macbeth lose a newborn child, and this is a really touching moment in the production. It shows the love between the couple but also their utter grief in losing their only child. However, the decision to then have her fall pregnant again completely changed this production, and indeed lines were added to bring this story into fruition. In the 2nd Act, we see Lady Macbeth lose this child, discovering blood between her thighs, just before the famous ‘out damn spot, out I say’ scene.

Millie Soni as the Child of Lord and Lady Macduff

The addition of a miscarriage completely changes this following scene and her character. It was originally meant to be the blood of the murdered King Duncan that she cannot get off her hands, her guilt ultimately sending her mad. This, famously, makes her the tragic villain of the play. However, in this production the blood is now shown more as being the blood from her miscarriage and the audience feel sympathy for her, changing her from villain to victim. Lady Macbeth is one of the most desirable roles in theatre for women. She’s traditionally this powerful figure who is clever and conniving in her own right. However, I couldn’t help but feel some of her power was stripped away from her, reducing her role to that of a mother, instead of a woman in her own right, perhaps the opposite of what we want to be showing in the 21st century.

Jayden Jhermaine Candala Seidi Dias (Fleance)

I may have personally left the theatre with split thoughts about the production, but I definitely left thinking about it. At no point in the play was I ever bored. It was visually impressive with some memorably powerful acting from the lead couple. Shakespeare is often considered out of touch, its language and themes diffiult to understand in this modern world of technology and slang. However, this production has tried to be relatable not only to a modern audience, but also a younger one. The use of regional accents and technological effects makes the play more relatable and keeps the audience visually gripped.

Kara Francis as the Child of Lord and Lady Macduff

This is a brilliant production to act as an introduction to Shakespeare as it is genuinely well blocked, fast paced and engaging. Though I might not jump to teach Shakespeare, there is a clear place for it within our theatres: it is part of our culture. Too often it is performed poorly and taught without passion. More Shakespearean plays like this should be created as it would help breed a new generation of fans.

Paul Brown (Lennox), Shahbaaz Khan (Malcolm) and Benjamin Cawley (Ross)

If you have a child about to start GCSE then I can’t recommend this enough – though if they are studying this play specifically you might want to explain the changes to the text afterwards! To be fair…despite some of my own more critical thoughts on the production, I’d still recommend it to anyone: it’s 2 hours of entertainment and philosophy that you won’t regret watching and if you’re already a Shakespeare fan it will make for a great debate, as it most certainly did for me and my English teacher friend who accompanied me. I think we’ll still be talking about it by the end of next week….. Enjoy.

Macbeth is at Leeds Playhouse until 23 March.

Photography by Kirsten McTernan. Main image: Ash Hunter with members of the cast of Macbeth.

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